When Joe Jackson Looked Back on ‘Blaze of Glory’
Joe Jackson's success in the late '70 and early '80s allowed him to indulge his need to explore different forms of music, including classical composing and soundtrack work. When he finally returned to pop at the end of the decade, his new songs reflected that growing ambition.
Blaze of Glory, released on April 19, 1989, was Jackson's most radio-friendly collection since 1986's Big World. Though given that album was a triple-LP suite inspired by post-WWII politics, recorded in front of an audience he'd ordered to be silent, "radio-friendly" didn't necessarily mean Jackson was fooling around with dance beats.
Glory served up a dozen songs that held together as a concept album of sorts -- and one that tackled a wide array of thought-provoking topics, including the Cold War ("Evil Empire"), '80s materialism ("Discipline"), the struggles faced by aging rockers trying to stay relevant ("Nineteen Forever"), and the broken promise of '50s optimism ("Tomorrow's World"). While its immediate predecessors found Jackson creating without regard for commercial prospects, this record balanced his experimental zeal against his way with a pop hook, offering a perfect distillation of his growing compositional strengths.
Unfortunately, Jackson's audience had shrunk a bit in the years since he'd broken the Billboard Top Five with 1982's Night and Day. Partly due to his willingness to test fans' patience with releases like 1987's classically tinged Will Power and partly due to changing trends at rock radio, Blaze of Glory arrived too late to capitalize on the string of Top 40 hits he'd scored earlier in the decade; although lead single "Nineteen Forever" enjoyed a decent run on the Alternative Rock chart, the album stalled at No. 61 in the States.
"I went through a period of being really angry and frustrated about it. I know for a fact that if the record company had done the right job it would have been a much more successful album. I know it," later admitted to Q. "It's not sour grapes, because I know what was going on in the company, and I know what goes on in the business and I know how good the album was."
As Jackson saw it, "A lot of the people who understood what I was doing and had supported me were gradually leaving A&M and a different kind of mentality established itself. I was kind of taken for granted. The attitude was: Old Joe's got his cult following and they'll buy his records anyway, so we'll just bung it out there and not really go the extra mile to broaden that audience."
Listen to Joe Jackson's 'Tomorrow's World'
Label indifference aside, Jackson didn't do himself any favors with his propensity for challenging listeners. Blaze of Glory came out during a time in which many veteran acts of Jackson's generation were still recording songs whose subject matter was as youth-friendly as ever -- or covering prom-ready ballads composed by outside writers -- but he instead eagerly embraced the opportunity to write honestly.
"Personally, I feel very excited about the idea of getting older and wiser and finding out more," he insisted to Q. "There's no reason why the music can't grow up with you. It's a very teenage perspective to say rock music isn't valid after you reach a certain age. I'm nowhere near doing my best work. Rock'n'roll isn't just about youth, it's about fun, romance, sex, dancing, anger, social comment...all of these things still apply as you get older. To be honest, I think it's a really overworked question -- the relationship between maturity and rock 'n' roll."
Right or wrong, Jackson's perspective -- and his dissatisfaction with longtime label A&M Records following the disappointing performance of Blaze of Glory -- would soon trigger a major shift in his work; when he resurfaced two years later with his next record, Laughter & Lust, he had a new label, and he spent most of the '90s tearing at genre boundaries with unwieldy, occasionally confounding efforts like Night Music and Heaven & Hell.
Ultimately, in terms of Jackson's tenure as a major-label pop artist, Blaze of Glory's title proved fairly prophetic, but his Top 40 tenure ended the way it started: on his own uncompromising terms. In a medium notorious for seducing and cajoling artists into making choices they'll later regret, that's not only admirable, it's fairly amazing.